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Tibet: What's Going On?

October 23, 1987

Tibet is the unlikeliest and yet the likeliest place to have political violence. Dirt poor and scenically rich, it is a spiritual haven in the sky for those who have been there or who have always dreamed of going. It is a Himalayan holdout against the 20th Century, the home of a Dalai Lama who can no longer live in his home country. Its quest for independence may well be a lost cause for what is by almost any worldly measure a primitive country, but the rights of its people under Chinese rule are not rights that the U.S. government should be casually shrugging off.

Tibet holds no particular strategic interest for the United States. It does not export oil. It seems to import only tourists--comparatively few of them. It is a land of Buddhist monks, poor farmers and yak herders controlled for almost 40 years by their neighbors, the Chinese. There are, in short, almost no reasons for Americans to care about Tibet except the fundamental one that, like its mountains, it is simply there. Its people have been killed by the hundreds of thousands in the last few decades, and its monasteries and their priceless treasures destroyed.

Because of its geography and the crabbed nature of its Chinese overlords, Tibet can have internal strife that almost no one can observe. It is not in the Chinese interests to tell the world the truth, and to date it apparently is not within the Reagan Administration's abilities or interests to try to discover that truth.

As best one can piece together from travelers' reports and from journalistic observations on the few days during which outsiders with notebooks were allowed into the country, the current troubles started in late September, when thousands of Tibetans held a rally in the capital, Lhasa, at which the Chinese pronounced death sentences against two Tibetans. Typically, the Chinese and the Tibetans disagreed on the nature of the Tibetans' crimes. The Chinese said that they were murderers; spokesmen for the Dalai Lama said that they were political prisoners.

It is indicative of the way things happen in Tibet that the day after the rally a giant rainbow arched over Drepung, one of the country's leading monasteries. The day after that there was a minor earthquake, and Tibetans took the two occurrences as a sign that they had the blessing of the Dalai Lama, who had been in Washington testifying before congressional human-rights hearings only days earlier.

In the weeks since then, monks have marched carrying the outlawed Tibetan flag, angry demonstrators have stoned police and burned down a police substation, and more than a dozen people, three of them monks, reportedly have died. China, which maintains that Tibet's fate is an internal issue, sent in more troops and has virtually sealed the country's borders.

The initial State Department response, while diplomatically correct in asserting that Tibet is part of China, was out of line in failing to condemn human-rights violations with sufficient vigor. The department has started to roll back from that position in the face of stinging criticism from Capitol Hill. It now even supports the congressional plan to send a fact-finding mission to Tibet --a mission that the Chinese are resisting as meddling in their internal affairs.

Tibetans--the non-Chinese Tibetans, at least--want the Dalai Lama to return to their country. They want independence, and they want religious freedom. They are not likely to get their wishes anytime soon, but at least they have aroused friends in Washington who don't want to see them oppressed. It would help if the Reagan Administration were among those friends.

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